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NAFO / Twitter

Memes are the new front in the war between Russia and Ukraine

A new front has opened in the war between Russia and Ukraine, but it’s not on the battlefield, it’s on social media.

The fight is being led by members of a group called NAFOR, and targets Russian online disinformation. Joanna Bostock spoke to Shashank Joshi, Defence editor of the Economist, to find out what impact this campaign is having.

Joanna Bostock: Let’s start with NAFO, presumably that’s a play on NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. So what is NAFO?

Shashank Joshi: NAFO is indeed a play on NATO. It stands for the “North Atlantic Fellows Organisation“ rather than Treaty Organisation. It’s essentially a kind of virtual army that is looking out for Ukraine’s interests and is viciously harassing Ukraine’s enemies, such as Russian officials and Russian propagandists and people seen to be unfavourable to Ukraine. It isn’t a formal group. It doesn’t have any formal structure or leadership. NAFO is more like a kind of online collective of people who are using memes, using irony, using these sorts of playful methods to attack rivals and engage in what you could call a kind of information warfare.

Joanna Bostock: Could you give us a sense of how they’re doing that and what the Russian response has been?

Shashank Joshi: For example, the iconic image of NAFO is a dog, a Shiba Inu, which is a breed that has a long history on the Internet, because it’s been used in many memes going back ten years, basically mocking Russia in various ways. For example, one of their slogans is „what are air defence doing?“, which is a way of making fun of how poorly Russian air defences have performed and a way of exposing Russian incompetence. Another phrase that they like using is „you pronounce this nonsense, not me“. That’s a reference to something a Russian diplomat said to one of these people on Twitter when he was being harassed. And that phrase has kind of passed into iconic status and is now effectively a slogan for the movement.

Joanna Bostock: It’s not new for armies to engage in psychological operations, trying to confuse and embarrass their enemies. How significant, how powerful is the use of memes and social media in this context?

Shashank Joshi: I think the important thing to remember is that it isn’t just propaganda and memes. They’re also fundraising. They’ve raised a lot of money for Ukraine by selling T-shirts and mugs and other things. One of the crucial bits of this NAFO collective is that if you want a little cartoon dog avatar known as a „fella“, then you have to donate money to something called the Georgian Legion, which is one of the military groups fighting in Ukraine, a foreign military volunteer group. Then someone will make you a little profile picture that you can use on Twitter or something else. So there’s a fundraising element to all of this. But you’re right, there’s also an information aspect to all of this. I think the argument is that if you look back to Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine back in 2014, there was a sense in which Russia dominated the information landscape. Russian propaganda was dominant, they commanded the narrative. And what NAFO does, this army of activists, or some people might even call them trolls, what it does is drown out that Russian propaganda, and it does so in a way that is playful, ironic, and that encourages people to join in. It’s authentic, it doesn’t feel like some 50 year old general in an army has come up with after weeks of committee design. It feels spontaneous, it feels fun, it feels effective. And I think that sense of drowning out the Russian narrative is what makes this new and what makes it so effective.

Joanna Bostock: So it’s basically an online army of lots and lots of Davids against the Russian Goliath. What’s the impact of this in terms of the overall war?

Shashank Joshi: That’s a great question, to which nobody has a great answer yet. It clearly has caught the attention of pro-Ukrainian people. It clearly has become a viral phenomenon and in that sense, it has kept Ukraine in the public eye, at least amongst a certain group of very online people, people who use Twitter often, journalists, maybe politicians, political leaders in a way that it might otherwise have faded. And that’s a really important thing at a time when Ukraine is desperate for help from the international community. But does it change people’s mind? If a neutral observer to the conflict is looking at a Russian diplomat’s tweet and then sees all these cartoon dogs piling on, does that person change their mind about the nature of the propaganda? Does it undermine that message? I think the jury is still out. This is a kind of information warfare that is clearly effective in catalysing support on your own side and gathering pro-Ukrain constituencies and mobilising them. Is it effective in the eyes of audiences who were uncommitted or perhaps more sympathetic to Russia? I’m much less sure of that.

Joanna Bostock: And I suppose there’s also the question whether the other side, as it were, will learn from NAFO and propogate an escalation?

Shashank Joshi: Well, Russia has used information warfare itself in the past, and it has used memes. In the 2016 U.S. election Russian-backed Internet trolls distributed lots of memes into the United States to try and influence the election, inflame social divisions, and effectively support the Trump campaign. That wasn’t terribly effective. People may remember the Pepé cartoon frog, which became a little cartoon icon of the far right movement in the United States. And that was an early analogue of this kind of campaign. But I think what this shows you is, you know, it’s not enough just to do the memes. They actually have to be authentic. They have to feel right. And so far, the Ukrainian side has got that. But the Russian side, perhaps because the war is so egregious, is so obviously wrong and divides opinion in such a stark way, at least in Europe and the United States, that they haven’t quite found the right answer to that themselves..

Joanna Bostock: So you’ve obviously been looking at this also from a serious point of view of what it means within the wider conflict. But what’s your favourite meme that you’ve come across?

Shashank Joshi: I loved the meme that was made for Oleksii Reznikov, the Ukrainian defence minister. Someone made him a little cartoon dog avatar, complete with his trademark goatee, holding a little model of a HIMAR launcher, the American- supplied rocket launchers that have been so effective, in his hand, and a big Ukrainian shield with with the Kerch Strait Bridge, which is a Russian bridge to Crimea, blowing up in the background. And that was a wonderful image. But what made it really wonderful was that Reznikov himself then tweeted about it and changed his profile picture to this fandastic, chaotic, wild image. I think that shows you: memes have gone mainstream. This is a campaign that isn’t just in the fringe corners of the Internet amongst enthusiasts. This is being taken out by the very upper echelons of Ukraine’s defence establishment as well.

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